Thursday, April 22, 2010
In honor of Maryland’s passage of the nation’s first “Benefit Corporation” bill signed into law today, we have collaborated with our contributor Ifeoma Ajunwa to address an area ripe for socially-minded entrepreneurs, eliminating food deserts and promoting the right to food here in the United States.
Access to healthful food is a human rights issue. Article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights[i] which is adopted by the United Nations affirmed that: “Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food.” “Food deserts[ii]” are community areas with little or no access to affordable, quality, and nutritious food. These communities, found in such cities as Detroit, Los Angeles, Memphis, and Newark, and most of which are largely populated by blacks and Latinos, suffer from a dearth of supermarkets, and can only rely on fast-food chains and corner stores that sell mostly liquor and some produce at exorbitant prices. About 23 million people, of whom about 6.5 million are children, inhabit low-income urban and rural spaces where the nearest supermarket is more than a mile away — keeping in mind that many low-income families can not afford a car. For an extreme example, nearly 633,000 of Chicago’s population live in communities that lack nearby supermarkets[iii].
Recently, First Lady Michelle Obama penned a cover story for Newsweek magazine in which she detailed her fight against the growing rates of obesity in school age American children. Obesity brings with it a host of health problems such as diabetes, heart disease and cancer. Further, high obesity rates negatively impact the economy as millions of tax-payer dollars are spent each year in treating the chronic diseases that stem from it. Since, as the First Lady noted, a third of American children are either overweight or obese, the fight against obesity is a matter of national concern.
In an effort to combat this problem, the First Lady has launched “Let’s Move[iv],” a program that employs several different tactics to help children and their parents towards the goal of a healthy weight. The strategies include: offering parents the tools to make better food choices for their children; a push towards more healthful food options at schools via the Healthier US Schools Challenge Program and the updating of the Child Nutrition Act; more physical activities for children; and the elimination of “food deserts.”
As part of the Fiscal Year 2011 budget, the Administration proposes the Healthy Food Financing Initiative which will invest $400 million a year to fund innovative projects that bring grocery stores to “food deserts” and other underserved areas. The Administration also plans to use grants to entice farmer’s markets and fresh food services to areas where they are currently lacking.
Not only will the elimination of “food deserts” boost the health of many of America’s population, the financial incentives for doing so will also revitalize the economy by providing new opportunities for entrepreneurship.
There are several pioneers who can serve as positive examples for entrepreneurs willing to take advantage of the fertile business climate of “food deserts.” One such trailblazer is Karriem Beyah[v], who runs Farmers Best Market, a store he recently opened in a predominantly Mexican-American neighborhood of Chicago known as Back of the Yards, and which had been abandoned by large supermarket chains. Another is William Allen[vi], a 2008 recipient of the MacArthur “Genius” award who founded Growing Power, a non-profit farming business. Through Growing Power[vii], Allen uses both rural and urban farming — at sites like Merton, Milwaukee, and Chicago — to bring fresh produce and meat products to low-income urban residents at a reduced price. His organization also offers internships that train minorities, immigrants and other interested participants to produce healthful food in their communities.
With the Obama administration wiling to invest millions of dollars to making the steps of all Americans a bit lighter, socially-minded entrepreneurs need only find a “desert” that needs cultivating to get their businesses off and running.
[i] Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted and proclaimed by General Assembly resolution 217 A (III) of 10 December 1948.
Tuesday, February 2, 2010
Chris Matthews’ blunder following President Obama’s State of the Union Address is by now common knowledge to political junkies. But for those that missed it, Matthews was so enamored with Obama’s speech that, well, he “forgot [the President] was black for an hour:”
It's interesting: he is post-racial, by all appearances. I forgot he was black tonight for an hour. You know, he's gone a long way to become a leader of this country, and past so much history, in just a year or two. I mean, it's something we don't even think about. I was watching, I said, wait a minute, he's an African American guy in front of a bunch of other white people. And here he is president of the United States and we've completely forgotten that tonight -- completely forgotten it.
For Matthews, Obama’s speech was significant because, for that moment in time, he was stripped of his “blackness.” Obama wasn’t race-less, per se, but instead no longer black. The faux pas falls under the heading of colorblind ideology—i.e. the idea that racial inequality and division will disappear if we just stop obsessing over racial differences. According to the ideology’s adherents, adopting a “colorblind” outlook—pretending we don’t notice differences in skin pigment—is the pathway to a more equal, democratic civil society.
The problem with this framework in general, and Matthews’ comment in particular, is the effective whitewashing and subsuming of different cultures. In other words, the colorblind rhetoric can only be realized if all races, creeds and colors simply adopt and are assimilated into the dominant white discourse. The ideology of colorblindness doesn’t call for a new, radical framework of, say, American racial identity. No, by contrast, colorblind ideology accepts whiteness as a given from which “others” must assimilate. As Ta-Nehisi Coates argues, echoed by G.D. in Postbourgie’s recent Podcast, this failure to investigate whiteness is deeply problematic. Colorblind ideology obfuscates the intersection of race, power, and privilege by accepting the dominant racial identity as the standard from which all other races must acclimate. To accept a “colorblind” framework, therefore, is to accept the superiority and dominance of a singular racial identity.
Still, to defend Matthews ever-so-slightly, I do think his heart was in the right place. Look, the guy never thought he’d see an African-American leading the free world. For Matthews and plenty others of his generation, the idea of a black president was—until last year—unfathomable. So, in some respects, the intent of Matthews comment was to laud the normalization of a black man in a position of power. Which, in all fairness, is pretty remarkable. Just because Chris Matthews failed to introspectively challenge his own entrenched racial identity—no small task, if you ask me—doesn’t mean we should dismiss his astute observation wholesale.
Was Matthews’ commentary racist? Maybe—but only if we accept the sophisticated critique of colorblind ideology. Yet the average white American doesn’t exactly think about racial identity like this on a day-to-day basis. And, perhaps, it is this widespread pattern—not Matthews’ individual blunder—that lies at the root of the problem.
Tuesday, January 26, 2010
Wunderkammer Magazine recently commissioned me to write a piece on Detroit for their Politics and Society section. I took the opportunity to write about a side of the city that gets significantly less attention in the popular media—the “other” Detroit, if you will. It ended up being a bit too long to post here in its entirety, but it’s worth a read nonetheless.
I take Interstate 96 eastbound from Ann Arbor. It’s the first warm day of 2008, and the combination of a bright sun and light breeze makes for a beautiful spring afternoon. After 35 miles of Midwestern nothing, I reach the city limits of Detroit. Small, decrepit housing lines the edges of the Southfield Freeway as I approach the exit for North Rosedale, a neighborhood located on the northwest side of the city. As I pull into the local Community House and park—the only privately owned park in the city—the smell of freshly cut grass is almost intrusive. A youth softball game is underway, and parents lounge in folding chairs. Along the edges of the park, residents—predominantly African-Americans—walk their dogs by large, single-family English Tudors. Almost without exception, each two-story house on each tree-lined street adorns a perfectly manicured lawn and a large wooden front door. It’s a middle-class oasis. A distinctly suburban feel, in fact. But it’s not the suburbs. It’s Detroit.
North Rosedale Park is the anti-slum. A middle-class majority remained after racial turnover, separating North Rosedale from countless other urban neighborhoods throughout the country. Homes are large, and social cohesion throughout the neighborhood is strong. Residents are tremendously proud of their neighborhood, and perhaps more importantly, committed to the city they call home.
No story or investigative report has captured this side of Detroit, the North Rosedale side. It’s not the bombed out train station, nor is it the urban prairie. It’s not the empty factory, nor is it the large housing project. It’s not the homeless man pushing his cart down a desolate downtown, nor is it the young woman waiting in line for a welfare check.No, it’s the daily struggle of the urban middle class, the plight of a forgotten population. It’s the neighborhood where Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm lived briefly before ultimately moving to the suburbs. It’s half a mile from where Detroit historian Thomas Sugrue grew up, a neighborhood his parents hoped to one day “be wealthy enough” to call home. It’s the tree-lined streets, the well-maintained community park. It’s the colorful gardens and golden retrievers. It’s the uneasy, yet unwavering middle class in an otherwise unsettling and unsure urban abyss.
It’s the other Detroit.
Special thanks to my editor, Dara Lind, for her encouraging comments and thoughtful critiques.
Saturday, January 23, 2010
Am I the only that finds it a bit ironic that the restaurant that has been criticized as the culinary culprit in the breakdown of the American family has returned to traditional gender roles in their advertisements? Or at least traditional gender expectations? Yes, McDonalds has been pointed out in the lineup as being many families' route, or rather escape, from having home-cooked meals around the dinner table as stable, nuclear family ought to be doing. I do not mean to single out McDonalds as if those who run the company orchestrated this phenomenon by themselves. But given the general ratchet effect that has taken effect in the number of activities we cram into a single, 24 hour period and changing expectations of members of society as whole, fast food restaurants in general have been seen as enablers of this decline. And when you're the biggest and baddest bully of them all, you tend to take the rap more so than the others.
So what is this post about? Well, my apple pie wrapper pictured above. The apple pie has been a staple and trademark American food since the days of our grandparents. You may recall the old saying, "As American as apple pie." Though mostly a white, middle class story, it did not stay within this demographic group alone. It was not only a gastronomic creation; it was a symbol of American domestic life for many years, both here and abroad. Many home economics books of yore typically employed different depictions of the apple pie on their covers while inside they outlined how women ought to fill their roles of wife, mother, and homebody. I took my favorite oldest niece (our running joke as I only have two nieces and she's the oldest. Get it? Good) to McDonald's for lunch when I was in Miami. We both got apple pies and I saw the wrapper. And I was like, wow. Seriously. "Mommy didn't have time." Really. Kind of pissed me off: I'm not lovin' it.
The kitchen, even in the advertisement for the quintessential fast food restaurant, remains the woman's domain. In fact, one may can interpret the reading as sanctioning women for bring to busy. Though some conservatives, as I say above, demonized these restaurants for allowing women to spend even less time at home, and especially in the kitchen, McDonalds and traditionalists seem to be of one mind. McDonald's has not gone as far as the old saying, "A woman's place is to be barefoot, pregnant, and in the kitchen," but the general picture, I argue, is still there.
As a practical matter, it takes time to bake an apple pie when you do it right. But, as this advertisement suggests, let's put a child and/or husband not having solely one on mommy.
This post is not meant to be particularly earth-shattering. Rather, it fits with my general thinking about how reified our thinking about gender roles and expectations are and how best are we to continue moving forward in contesting, blurring, and crossing these boundaries. Personally, I feel that there is still much work to be done. However, I know that this is preaching to the choir members who also serve on the usher board on alternative Sundays and volunteer for the Sheppard's care ministry (to use and extend that old adage). In commenting on my post "How Not So Far We've Come: (Still) "Doing Gender"" where I discuss the gendered picture on baby changing stations in bathrooms, one of our more insightful readers said that things will change only when men start to care. I partially agree with her. I think that things will change when both men and women no longer take pictures, phrases, or depictions like these for granted.
Saturday, January 16, 2010
In the episode, "Wheels," the members of the gLee club are ordered, or rather sentenced, to be confined to a wheel chair for at least three hours a day while at school. At first, I was like "LOL ROFL" because this "exercise" was supposed to create team unity as the other members did not show any concern for not having enough money to rent a wheel chair accessible bus so that one of their group member's, Artie, who is wheelchair bound could come. Yet when I watched the show again, the same feeling that I had when I saw the baldcaps on the T and Will Smith's fat suit on The Fresh Prince of Bel Air. It was supposed to be both a comedic as well as a teaching moment. I mean, at the end of the show, they sung Ike and Tina Turner's "Proud Mary" in wheelchairs, starting it off with Finn saying, "This one's for you Artie." I mean, they did a good job, but the feeling did not leave me. Were the wheelchairs more to help Mercedes, Rachel, Puck, Finn, and the others understand Artie's plight or just props or accessories for the group to use while performing? The inability to separate the two options from one another or even choose the former as the right question to ask shows evidence for my questioning of these "moments."
I ask again, what exactly is being said when we use other people's situation as teaching moments for privileged individuals. The directors had Artie seem enthusiastic about the fact that his friends will be joining him in being wheelchair bound. I am not sure exactly what his response is supposed to mean. As I argued in part I, "we must realize that we do not become who we pretend to be but also that who we pretend to be are real. It is the mismatch between the show of solidarity and the reality of the life of those individuals that I find most troubling. The insolence of understanding." One key example is the moment when Finn became frustrated with Quinn's constant nagging for money for the baby and mounting doctor bills, GOT UP out of his wheelchair and left Quinn and the others behind, invoking his latent, ever-present ability to walk.
To speak more generally, I think there is a difference between detailing the life experiences of others and walking a few days, in this case, hours in someone else's shoes and then reporting it as one's lived experiences. This may be a fine line, but I believe that it is a concrete line nonetheless. When we begin to speak of other's experiences as our own without questioning the distance that exists between oneself and others, we begin to get into murky waters.
*(Shani, Community is Good, but gLee is Definitely Way Better)
Tuesday, December 22, 2009
But there are certainly stupid, asinine attempts at “investigative” reporting:
A few factual corrections:
“Detroit sucks, but why? Well to start, it’s no secret that Detroit is run entirely by Leftists. Every single mayor of Detroit since 1961 has been a liberal. It is the city of entitlement programs.”
Yeah, and every mayor of Boston and Chicago has been a Democrat since 1930 and 1931, respectively. But Boston has the 8th highest housing prices in the nation, and Chicago is currently the 3rd most populous American city. Both Boston and Chicago have enjoyed Democratic dominance far longer than Detroit, yet continue to be prosper at the aggregate level. The obvious rebuttal to Crowder’s report is the classic “correlation does not mean causation” statement, but that would imply Crowder actually illustrated a correlation between, well, anything.
“How did it get this way? It all started with Mayor Jerome Cavanaugh in 1961.”
Yeah, well, no. Crowder is about 30 years late in his pseudo-historical analysis, as the well-documented decline of Detroit began with the major auto manufacturers—not the auto unions—in the 1930s and 40s. Federal highway construction as a military mobilization tool aided industrial decentralization and the racially restrictive postwar housing boom, and, you guessed it, Detroit’s affluent residents fled en masse. Unfounded fear of a growing murder rate combined with racial resentment over school desegregation measures and the Detroit metro region morphed into a chocolate city with vanilla suburbs by the late 1970s. This meticulously documented social and economic change—the actual root of the city’s decline—came well before contemporary UAW bargaining agreements, the housing crisis, or even Kwame Kilpatrick’s indiscretions.
To suggest that Detroit somehow represents the archetype of Democratic leadership is either grossly dishonest or insanely stupid. A cursory view of any map of home foreclosures, population loss, or median household income decline illustrates a clear geographic pattern: The deindustrialized Rust Belt, northern Florida and much of California have been the hardest hit by our most recent recession. The states of Michigan, Ohio, Indiana, Pennsylvania, Florida and California are all in serious trouble, and their respective histories and contemporary troubles run much deeper than simple party politics.
Oh, and that scene at the end? The one of the Michigan Central Depot, a bombed out former train station? That building is actually owned by a billionaire trucking tycoon, and closed down in the 80s during the Reagan era of, er, prosperity. It has nothing to do with auto bailouts, or Democratic politicians, or teacher’s unions. If anything, it represents the effects of economic excess and corporate neglect.
Like many journalists before him, Crowder is a lazy opportunist. I understand his schtick—the cutesy, hip young conservative that serves up clever quips against liberal politics. But if this simplistic garbage is any indication of the relative intellect of young conservatives, well, their "movement" leaves a lot to be desired.
Monday, December 21, 2009
In the months preceding December’s blockbuster explosion, two films have been dominating the box office: Lee Daniels’ Precious and John Lee Hancock’s The Blindside. Both films are based on critically acclaimed books and both take issues of racial inequality head-on. Albeit for different reasons, both films have also been lauded as inspiring stories of racial uplift.I’d love to offer glowing reviews of both films, noting their sophisticated and nuanced take on contemporary race relations. I’d love to submit my own adoration for their careful depictions of disadvantage, dealing with complex and often contradictory emotions with honest realism. Most importantly, I’d love to express my satisfaction with their innovative explorations of solutions—some policy-relevant commentary, perhaps—to the problems of urban poverty vividly portrayed in each film.
But in reality, Precious is more of a shortsighted journey into insulated dysfunction, while The Blindside is closer to a condescending fairytale of Christian charity cure-alls.
Precious portrays internal, inner-city pathos like no film before it. The film’s main character, Precious, is morbidly obese, sixteen years old in the 8th grade, pregnant with her second child from her father, living in abject poverty with her physically and emotionally abusive mother, and HIV-positive to boot. The film itself follows her through a particularly difficult period in her life, from the welfare office to the fried chicken spot to the alternative school where she can finally express herself—through writing in a journal, of course. But it rings of reality, and, anachronisms aside, speaks a few truths of urban poverty.
Yet the excessive focus on internal dysfunction and pathology ignores the role of external forces—be they shifts in the economy or social policy reforms—in perpetuating the conditions from which Precious emerges. For viewers ignorant to criminal justice reforms in the last two decades or AFDC or economic decentralization or employment discrimination, Precious provides a simplistic message of fried chicken loving, psychologically disturbed welfare queens. The system failed Precious well before her birth, but this reality of poverty is all but obscured by flying frying pans and hairy pigs’ feet. And the uplifting ending? Precious’ triumphant awakening as she exits the welfare office, finally standing up to her mother? It’s hard to forget that she’s still 16, with two mentally retarded children, homeless, no job, and slowly dying of AIDS. Forgive me for not feeling empowered.
The Blindside provides a glimpse into what Precious’ life could have been…had rich white people in Tennessee adopted her. The Blindside is based on the true story of Michael Oher, a homeless black teenager who’s athletic ability found him enrolled in a Memphis prep school. The gentle giant is ultimately adopted by Leigh Anne and Sean Tuohy after the Good Christian family discovers that poor Michael is, well, poor. They take Michael into their home and find him a tutor, raising his GPA to make him eligible for a college football scholarship. Michael ultimately “chooses” a scholarship from Ole Miss (his adopted parents are alums and boosters), and, as of the 2009 season, suits up for the NFL’s Baltimore Ravens. For two hours of racial Kum Bay Ya, the white family accepts the black teenager without so much as an inkling of reservation, and the black teenager accepts the “crazy white people” without ever seriously questioning their intentions.
That’s not to say that The Blindside doesn’t include flashes of racial brilliance. In one scene, Leigh Anne (Michael Oher’s adopted mother, played by Sandra Bullock) has lunch with three of her affluent, white, female friends. One friend asks her how she can possibly feel comfortable with a big black boy in her home—she does have a teenage daughter, after all. Leigh Anne looks her square in the eyes, and with piercing subtlety, quietly states “Shame on you” as she leaves the restaurant. Later that night, she pulls her daughter aside and asks her—in a far less subtle tone—if she feels comfortable with Michael sleeping next door. She’s cool with it, but this mother-daughter awkwardness isn't the point of the scene. Rather, it illustrates the daily internal negotiations among socially conscious whites, constantly balancing pervasive stereotypes with their own moral inclinations. Racial literacy is a process, not a character trait, and this honest scene is quite powerful.
Ultimately, there are good scenes and bad scenes in each film. Yet both end with deeply problematic, insidious implications: Precious relegates disadvantage to internal pathos, and The Blindside perpetuates the dubious fairytale that a little bit of individual charity can solve group-level social problems. Why does concentrated poverty persist? Must be because the lives of poor African-Americans are in disarray as a result of drug abuse and parental neglect. And what can we do about it? Find some nice white people, and adopt all the helpless black children.
Internal dysfunction, solved with external charity. Not exactly the sophisticated portrayal of racial inequality I had hoped for.
Monday, November 9, 2009
Few television shows have received as much academic praise as HBO’s The Wire. From City Hall to the classroom to the street corner, The Wire brilliantly captured the heart and soul of urban America—the same heart and soul meticulously detailed in countless academic studies of urban inequality.
Yet the scholars that research urban America rarely come into contact with the actors that portray urban America in television or film. That is, until two weeks ago when three actors from The Wire—Andre Royo (Bubbles the junkie), Sonja Sohn (Kima the detective), and Michael Williams (Omar the stickup artist)—sat down with three scholars—Harvard sociologists William Julius Wilson and Larry Bobo, and Yale graduate student/Baltimore native Brandon Terry—to discuss the social policy implications and lessons from the show.
After the panel, Royo, Song, and Willams were escorted to a private after-party at The Harvard Lampoon, a building that houses the Harvard undergraduate humor magazine of the same name. Since the panel’s moderator is also my colleague in the Sociology department, I received a highly coveted (and much appreciated) invite to the party.
As a huge fan of the show, I could barely contain myself. I tried my best to keep it cool, keeping my camera in my pocket and resisting the urge to ask for an autograph. But when I sparked a conversation with Andre Royo, my composure started to fade. See, Bubs was my favorite character on the show, and Royo’s brilliant and careful portrayal of the homeless drug addict made my admiration for the character that much stronger. After a geek-out session about the show’s integration of professional actors with actual Baltimore natives (we went back and forth for a good five minutes listing each and every B-more local that appeared on the show), we started to talk about the inherent difficulty of portraying junkie.
Of course, playing a junkie isn’t that difficult, if the whole twitching-and-randomly-scratching-yourself caricature is your thing. But fans of The Wire know that Bubbles wasn’t your average junkie. There was an art to the way Royo played Bubs, a unique take on a classic character that fundamentally changed the way we approach “the junkie:” We never pitied him when he fell, but rather rooted for him to rise back up. In a strange way, the down-and-out junkie was the show’s most consistent hero.
According to Royo, a few unpaid consultants helped him develop the character. These consultants showed up at his trailer each morning, followed him and the production crew throughout Baltimore, and advised him through each and every scene. When he threw away a cigarette before smoking it to the filter, for example, they were quick to correct his mistake. How were they privy to the intimate details of life as a junkie? Because these consultants weren’t really consultants at all: They were the men and women that lived their lives on the streets of Baltimore. The very men and women Royo’s character was based on.
After each day, he’d retire to his trailer and remove his makeup. “And when I’d walk out,” he told me, “I looked at these people that had helped me all day, and I could see the betrayal in their eyes. At the end of the day, I could get cleaned up and go home, while they spent the night on the street. They looked at me like a sellout. It [messed] with my head for a long time.” Royo would feel depressed, and after particularly long days he often needed to spend time alone, away from everyone, to gather his thoughts. Here were men and women that could barely get by, struggling with addiction, and Royo was exploiting their lived experiences to get a paycheck. I asked Royo how he dealt with the guilt. “I just tried to portray the character—their world—with humanity. That’s all I could really do,” he replied. “But it was hard for me, emotionally.”
Detailing the lives of marginalized and disadvantaged communities requires a profound responsibility—a responsibility to be humble, compassionate, and above all else, honest. When Royo waxed philosophical, introspectively analyzing his role as both actor and representative, I couldn’t help but connect. As a qualitative researcher of urban inequality, I’m constantly dealing with the label of “privileged white guy that studies poor black people.” One the one hand, I feel a moral obligation to fight for those that are systematically disadvantaged. But on the other hand, such analyses can quickly become deeply paternalistic. Those that are familiar with my work and ideas know that I reject fetishizing “the other,” taking a comprehensive approach that avoids a singular focus on poor people of color. Still, the risk of exploitation never leaves the back of my mind. I never forget that I am making a career out of someone else’s life. I never forget who I am, constantly problematizing my ability to ever fully understand someone else’s world. And I never forget why I do it in the first place or why these issues matter. Like Royo, I constantly question myself, my work, and my role as a researcher.
Representing reality—be it on television or in academic research—requires a commitment to the craft of storytelling. But more importantly, it requires integrity. It was that integrity that made The Wire so powerful, and it is that critical honesty that makes good research. Urban polemics notwithstanding, this was the show’s most valuable lesson.
Friday, October 16, 2009
In 1990, Democratic challenger Harvey Gantt opposed Republican incumbent Jessie Helms in North Carolina's Senate race. Gantt, an early civil rights leader and Mayor of Charlotte, ultimately lost the election, thanks in part to a racially charged advertisement from the Helms campaign. The now infamous ad, “Hands,” depicted a white man crinkling up a piece of paper after losing his job to a minority, implying, of course, that unfair racial quotas were to blame. Written by Republican strategist Alex Castellanos, the ad would go down in political history as one of the more egregious (and successful) exploitations of white resentment for political gain.
When asked to endorse Gantt for the Senate seat, NBA legend and North Carolina native Michael Jordan refused, stating, “Republicans wear sneakers, too.” The implication was clear, and the message came through loudly: As an avid businessman and superstar athlete, Jordan was happy to shelve his politics—and self dignity, for that matter—in favor of merchandise sales.
Flash forward nineteen years. Last week, conservative radio personality and former ESPN NFL commentator Rush Limbaugh announced interest in buying the beleaguered St. Louis Rams. Rejecting Michael Jordan-style political ambivalence, players across the league openly expressed dissatisfaction. Mathias Kiwanuka of the New York Giants, for example, was quoted as saying:
"I mean, I don't want anything to do with a team that he has any part of. He can do whatever he wants, it is a free country. But if it goes through, I can tell you where I am not going to play […] I am not going to draw a conclusion from a person off of one comment, but when it is time after time after time and there's a consistent pattern of disrespect and just a complete misunderstanding of an entire culture that I am a part of, I can't respect him as a man."
Kiwunaka was not alone. In 2003, Limbaugh resigned as an ESPN commentator after making racially charged remarks about Donovan McNabb, suggesting that the Pro Bowl quarterback only reached stardom due to the media’s irrational desire for “a black quarterback [to] do well.” Current players, like New York Jets linebacker Bart Scott, have not forgotten these statements:
“It’s an oxymoron that he criticized Donovan McNabb. A lot of us took it as more of a racial-type thing. I can only imagine how his players would feel. I know I wouldn’t want to play for him. He’s a jerk. He’s an —. What he said (about McNabb) was inappropriate and insensitive, totally off-base. He could offer me whatever he wanted, I wouldn’t play for him. … I wouldn’t play for Rush Limbaugh. My principles are greater and I can’t be bought.”
In a league that’s between 60 and 70 per cent black, it’s more than a little insulting to imagine a man that once suggested the NFL “all too often looks like a game between the Bloods and the Crips without any weapons” could become a team owner. In fact, it’s absolutely outrageous. That a man with such overt, explicit contempt for African Americans could purchase and control an organization that profits from the labor of black athletes signals far too much historical baggage to be appropriate. Sports hold a special, unifying place in American culture, and as a result shouldn’t be a venue that rewards bigotry and divisiveness. Limbaugh’s disrespect of the league, its players, and African Americans in general are all legitimate grounds to oppose his involvement with the NFL—all opinions, I might add, that exist above and beyond any objection to his political views.
Given Limbaugh’s long history of racially charged remarks, it’s not surprising that players were offended by his announcement. But what is surprising is the public nature of their comments. Normally, team owners work to thwart political activism and diffuse dissent among their players. Bad for business, per the Jordan model of merchandise sales. But with the controversy over Limbaugh’s announcement, professional athletes may be moving toward a new model of political discourse, rejecting the Jordan template and re-embracing self dignity. The recent news that Limbaugh was officially dropped from the group bidding to buy the Rams only underscores the potential power of civically engaged professional athletes. Maybe this is the dawn of a new era—an era of renewed self-respect, moral integrity and civic engagement—in professional sports.
Tony Kornheiser of ESPN’s Pardon the Interruption made this very point earlier in the week, suggesting, “We are out of the Michael Jordan era where everyone wears sneakers, and back to the Jim Brown era of social activism.”
No complaints here.
Wednesday, October 14, 2009
To begin, I quote one contributor over at Womanist Musings, the blog where I found this clip. She states that
Once again, [Safi] is so bang on correct. The way that coming out is constructed in the media is absolutely ridiculous. I mean seriously…they make it seem like someone is admitting to murder. Heaven forbid the media just have GLBT people going on with their lives just like everyone else. Oh no, we cannot possible portray being gay or lesbian as anything other than an oddity.
However, I wonder if the contributor to Womanist Musing listened/watched the entire clip. Safi mentions that there has been a proliferation of “outings,” both voluntary and involuntary, in recent history in the media (in this case speaking only to TV sitcoms). He states that “coming out” has been depicted in a number of ways and through various avenues and the like. In fact he outlines, again in a colorful manner, some himself. The question I have is, does this not speak to reality more than fiction? Is it a sign of times getting better and not worse? Though Safi doesn’t include clips from Grey’s Anatomy, for instance, there was an occasion with Cali where the more fanatical, hysterical “outing” didn’t happen. To use one example Safi uses himself, Glee, wasn’t Kurt’s coming out—both to Mercedes and his father—one of the modal occurrences? What about Calvin in Greek: Ashleigh thinking Calvin is hitting on her and she makes a move (a kiss) only to be stopped with the news that he is gay? I am not saying that this is in fact how everyone who is outwardly gay came out, but Safi’s portrayal, at least to me, sullies and minimizes those experiences.
Though I agree that “coming out” has been incorporated into scripts to draw in the crowds, I have to ask about the assumption that we are making about the entire cast of characters being heterosexual save for those who will be somehow marked as gay. I know that some will say this is a statistical fact; there are more heterosexual individuals than homosexual. This may very well be the case but we still see instances in popular sitcomes where we are left in surprise when we find out someone is gay and it is not an instance of the “Flaming Kamikaze” or the “Kanye West Swift Kick.” I think about Grant from Greek, a show that Safi himself uses twice as evidence for his producers using coming out as an attraction to lure viewers in. No one on the show knew that Grant, Calvin’s new boyfriend, was gay until he and Calvin started hooking up. It seems to me that from the position Safi puts himself in is one that assumes everyone is straight until proven otherwise. That, to me, is problematic in and of itself though I do understand that given the history of LGBQTI individuals in the media, it is a reasonable assumption.
When speaking of such an important life event in people’s lives I think we have to be a little smarter in our analysis even when trying to be snarky and comical. Sadly, Safi sensationalizes the outings in the same manner he vilifies the media for doing. Is that the pot calling the kettle black? Instead of taking a more exhaustive, panoramic view of the presence of LGBQTI individuals on television shows and their “outings” and lack thereof, Safi lets us all down, gay and straight alike.